FROM DUST ‘TIL DAWN Calexico

On the eve
of the band’s
Carried
to Dust American tour, we re-examine how
Calexico is forging a brave new future.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

If
Barack Obama defeats Senator Same Old Song & Dance this November, let’s
skip the heartland Mellencamp and tomorrow-obsessed Fleetwood Mac and celebrate
with music more in tune with the better angels of America’s nature, so
neglected these last eight torturous years.

 

Few
bands would be better suited for that gig than Tucson’s Calexico. Culturally diverse,
intellectually curious, environmentally aware, and self-reliant yet socially
responsible, these qualities inform some of the most vibrant and eclectic music
American rock has to offer. The closer? Their new release, Carried to Dust, may be the best damn thing you hear this year.

 

Of course, Joey Burns and John Convertino, the ex-Giant
Sand rhythm section that began moonlighting as Calexico a dozen years ago, don’t
subscribe to the sloganeering school of agit-rock. Instead, their band has
evolved into a kind of musician kibbutzim whose defining trait is the mysterious nature of collaboration itself – a cooperative
tonic for every greedy cash grab, bogus terror alert, renditioning, waterboarding,
wiretapping, and “heckuvajobbing” spawned in Bush’s Orwellian reign.

 

But in this dysfunctional era, even the least
sentient have felt the foundation slip. Who hasn’t traveled down paths –
emotional, psychological, or artistic – they might otherwise never have, if
only in search of a response that didn’t involve one-way air-fare or a long
rifle in a tall tower? Calexico’s journey mirrors the national zeitgeist, maybe
plus some; given the band’s globe-spanning itineraries, the disconnect most
Americans felt was only exaggerated for Calexico when they toured the States.

 

Their 2006 release, Garden Ruin, channeled that frustration and angst into skittish rock
tempos and foreboding narratives, and featured furious crescendos that still
couldn’t quite relieve the tension. As Convertino says, “There [were] monsters
lurking all over Garden Ruin, even in
the pretty bits.”

 

But with change in the air, Americans seem willing
to peek out from their psychic bomb shelters for a look around. Hope is back,
and like most of us, the members of Calexico feel cautiously optimistic that we
might soon resume lives that will be, if not exactly worry-free, not defined by
manufactured fear either.

 

 “Having
gotten something of a response to the Bush administration out of our system,
and knowing that this is ending soon,” says Burns, “there’s a sense of hope
again.”

 

“It’s been a load lightened off our shoulders
just knowing he’s going to be gone soon,” adds Convertino. “I sense something
has changed with the new record; it’s a lot more experimental, and we’re having
a little more fun with it.”

 

***

 

With the ogre’s shadow gone from its central role
in their songwriting equation, the 15 tracks on Carried to Dust read like a crystallization of all things Calexico:
familiar elements refracted into exhilarating new sonic territories. The record’s
title alludes to Ask the Dust, the mid-century
novel by second generation-immigrant writer and underground hero John Fante, a
Convertino favorite. He says it resonated because of the main character’s
resilience. “I loved the character Bandini and his struggle; you get to the
point where you feel the whole world’s going to crumble, and then something
amazing happens.”

 

Victor Gastelum’s arresting chica-in-a-lowrider cover is the first sign of familiar footing;
with the exception of their 1997 debut Spoke and then Garden Ruin, Calexico’s
official full-lengths, EPs and singles are synonymous with his iconic artwork. Also
back in the fold are musical strong suits like the wide-screen desert noir, mariachi/surf
guitar mash-ups, Miles Davis mutes, nylon-stringed guitars, and high-and-lonesome
twang that defined The Black Light (1998) and Hot Rail (2000).
Elsewhere, the string orchestration of “The News About William” and funky drive
of the Latin Playboys-inspired son “Inspiración”
recall Feast of Wire‘s wider palette.
The experimental ambient touches and haunting interludes return from Garden Ruin exile as well, but fresh twists
on that record’s pop sensibilities and rock dissonance can be heard on “Writer’s
Minor Holiday,” “Two Silver Trees” and “Red Blooms.”

 

“You can almost imagine each song coming from a
different album in the past, and yet it’s been reworked and modernized so the
entire record has a new sound,” says Nick Luca, a long-time Calexico
collaborator who plays keys, guitar and Chinese ghuzeng on the new record.

 

The rock-fueled immediacy of Garden Ruin‘s production (overseen by
J.D. Foster) has been moved aside here, replaced by an element that distinguished
previous records: a sense of open space to match their desert environs. The
band credits co-producer and mixer Craig Schumacher, who’s worked with Calexico
on everything but Garden Ruin, with
opening their sound back up. Recorded and mixed at the band’s second Tucson home, Wavelab
Studios, Carried to Dust “has that
kind of ‘big room’ sound, the space in which you hear a natural decay of the
drums or trumpets,” says Burns.

 

“There is something in all the layers and
textures and subtleties that go into all the musicians’ choice of notes,” he
goes on. “But that kind of sensibility does really well when there is that
space for them to hear it. I think Craig gets that, so when we mix he knows
we’re going toward that. We like those mysterious notes that are in the
background, or just beyond the main instrument or voice. The mystery is
important; it goes hand in hand with the sentiment of a lot of the music and
the themes of the songs.”

 

Another sign of things opening back up: Carried to Dust‘s instrumental segues,
like “Sarabande in Pencil Form” and “Falling from Sleeves.” Burns describes them
as “little breaths” between songs that heighten “that more cinematic flow.” In
the past, Convertino says, he and Burns would deploy an instrumental to “reflect
on the songs with words,” but with Garden
Ruin
, they tried to “bring all of that together within each song.” Hence,
no instrumentals on that album.

 

It was no secret that Calexico went into Garden Ruin determined to switch things
up: they tracked from scratch as often possible with all six Calexicans present,
employed an outside producer for the first time, mixed the disc not at Wavelab
but in New York,
and highlighted their classic and indie rock influences. But some fans worried
that the new direction came with a steep bill – the loss of what defined the
band in the first place. They hadn’t exactly become the Strokes, but seemed
pointed in that direction.

 

As if in answer, Burns and Convertino went into
Wavelab alone after Garden Ruin‘s
release and recorded Tool Box, a tour-only
disc for their summer 2006 tour of Europe. Still,
it was hard to tell whether the 14 instrumentals were something to tide old
fans over, or a final purge of the word-less songbook.

 

Burns expected some fans, especially in Europe, to jump ship when they heard Garden Ruin. (A risky move, since Calexico’s bread has been
buttered better in the Old Countries; even with the cost of flying the band,
crew and equipment overseas, Burns says that the European tours, where they
play bigger venues and major festivals, still “pay for the American ones.”) But
they wanted “to make a point about, and for, America,” he adds, and hoped that
the more straight-ahead rock would attract new American fans. If positive
critical reaction is any yardstick, they probably did. But even the highest
praise for Garden Ruin typically came
with an elegy: “I won’t lie,” wrote one critic who loved the record, “I already
miss Calexico’s old mariachi-indie rock sound and the rampant eclecticism.”

 

Now it turns out all the hand-wringing was for naught.
Says Convertino: “I think people were like, ‘What happened to the ambience and
the instrumentals? You guys don’t like doing that anymore?’ No, we do like doing that, we still love that
aspect of the band, and I think that’s pretty evident in the new record.”

 

The times may simply have demanded the urgent
sonic and narrative shifts of Garden Ruin.
No one in Calexico is close to disowning it, but the new record sounds like
they’re more comfortable integrating the pop and rock into their own roots, rather than at the expense of them. Convertino
admits many of the songs on Garden Ruin felt like they “came from the outside in” and that may have made the biggest
difference in the end.

 

Still, Paul Niehaus, who’s played pedal steel
and guitar full-time for the band since 2001, suggests that if a couple more
traditional Calexico cuts that didn’t make the record had been included, Garden Ruin might’ve wound up “very
similar to the new record – it’s a very fine line there and you don’t really
notice until after the fact when you have something to compare it to.” But he
says that creatively, “it really has to start with John and Joey. They have a
vision of what Calexico can sound like, and we got away from that a little, but
on this one it’s definitely back.”

 

Before any new writing and recording for Carried to Dust took place, Calexico scheduled
some much-needed decompression time in 2007. The band had spent six months of
the year on the road each year since 2001 when they fleshed out the lineup with
Niehaus, bassist Volker Zander, and multi-instrumentalists Jacob Valenzuela and
Martin Wenk.

 

But time off is a relative term in the Calexico
universe. Their down-time included tours of Japan
in January, Australia and New Zealand in February; 19 Euro dates in July; Argentina and Chile
in October; and sprinkled one-offs throughout the U.S. during the other months. And
though studio work on Carried to Dust didn’t really begin in earnest until a year ago August, Burns and Convertino stayed
busy after Garden Ruin by adding to
their lengthy resumes, appearing on records by: Iron & Wine (The Shepherd’s Dog); Spanish rockers Amparo
Sanchez and Jairo Zavala; Lizz Wright (Verve’s answer to Blue Note’s Norah
Jones); French songstress Marianne Dissard; Naim Amor of ABBC fame; Susie Hug, formerly
of the Katydids; Italy’s Vinicio Capossela; and Neko Case, whose next album is
due soon. (The list is long enough that Burns phones back after Convertino
reminds him of more.) The soundtrack-friendly Calexico also contributed score
material and the song “Going to Acapulco”
to Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, in which Burns and Convertino cameo as part of the brass brand in Richard
Gere’s segment.

 

These collaborations fuel Calexico; secure in
their considerable musicianship and songwriting abilities, Burns and Convertino
thrive in the exchanges and are regularly touted as “great listeners” by other
musicians. Sam Beam, who recorded In the
Reins
with Calexico as his backing band, returns to add harmony vocals to “Valparaiso” on Carried to Dust; he also inspired some
of the striking images in “Two Silver Trees” by turning Burns onto the poetry
of Norman Dubie. Sanchez, who did a duet with Burns on Garden Ruin, does the same here with Valenzuela on “Inspiración.”
Zavala adds guitar throughout, and takes a great vocal turn on disc-opener
“Victor Jara’s Hands,” a tribute to the Chilean folk music hero murdered by Pinochet’s
death squads. Burns and Convertino met Willie Nelson band member Mickey Raphael
during the making of I’m Not There;
he adds harmonica to “Bend
to the Road.” Tortoise/Brokeback veteran Douglas McCombs, who appeared on 2000’s
tour-only disc Travellall, returns
for Carried to Dust‘s haunting ambient
piece “Contention City,” and Burns’ duet with Iowa singer Pieta Brown on the country
shuffle “Slowness” is another album highlight.

 

But the give-and-take starts with Burns and
Convertino, who’ve now played together for 18 years. The pair still open
occasional shows with an improvised duo piece (including on-the-spot lyrics)
typically so cohesive it fools many – including yours truly – into believing they
must be obscure covers or unreleased songs. They usually performed as a
two-piece in Calexico’s early years (and still do on occasion), and honed their
improv skills so well in Howe Gelb’s flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ensemble
Giant Sand that Niehaus says they “operate at such a very high level it makes
you really concentrate to come up with something that adds to the music.”

 

Luca is one of Wavelab’s regular engineers and has
worked on countless records made in the studio they fondly refer to as “the
hermit’s Abbey Road.”
He says the Burns/Convertino method of improvising ideas to tape or Pro-Tools
in the studio is far from standard. Most musicians show up with a list of
mapped-out songs that undergo minor changes in the studio; Calexico will record
“50 snippets of crazy ideas,” Luca says, and then bring in regular band members
and guests to add their input. “That’s really been Joey’s brilliance, his sense
of community and incorporating everybody around – that’s really made Calexico
what it is.”

 

Burns gives the credit to the other musicians’ “shared
appreciation for this kind of aesthetic and this path,” made of “many sounds
and many styles and influences.” But his greatest praise goes to Convertino,
whose drumming “drives the bus” – a sentiment many echo. The open spaces on Carried to Dust really play to the
drummer’s jazz-influenced strengths, and his parts are as nuanced and tuneful
as any other instrument on the record. Niehaus’ first reaction upon hearing the
final mixes was typical: “The drums just blew me away.”

 

But the Convertino Effect goes beyond his skills
with the skins. Burns says the care that the drummer takes with his kits – he
prefers vintage models, and has bought old sets on-line just to fix them up and
sell them at cost to friends like Victoria Williams and Neko Case – is a
metaphor you can extend to the way Convertino lives his life. Luca says that if
Burns is the songs’ homebuilder, and the band members, guest musicians and
studio staff serve as subcontractors, Convertino is the arbiter elegantiae, quietly suggesting when something drifts too
far from the Calexico aesthetic. “Everything about him is very vintage, very
tasteful,” Luca says, “we trust him for that.”

 

Burns cautions that this vintage is no retro hipster
put-on, but an organic response to the built-in obsolescence of modern life:
“John has seen it and then seen through it,” he says. “He’s just got this
Kerouac-like sense of adventure and poetic grace so that wherever we go…people
pick up on his dynamic, and that has a lot to do with how we’ve formed the
Calexico feel and sound.”

 

Calexico’s international flavors and themes can
obscure the fact that their music is resolutely American – maybe more so for
bringing so many different cultures into their sonic melting pot.

 

Their first trip to Chile and Argentina, where
they played sold-out shows in thousand-seat venues, provided Burns with plenty
of fodder for new lyrics, some courtesy of the CIA-funded ‘70s coup that gifted
the world Pinochet, and today’s echoes at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. An article
in The Economist about the growing
poverty in the new Russia
inspired striking images – “shadows drinking antifreeze” – and allusions to
Gogol’s Dead Souls in “Red Blooms,”
while the Oriental flavors of “Two Silver Trees” bring yet another musical
influence to the band’s table. One of Calexico’s thematic staples, urban sprawl
and its corrosive environmental effects, is beautifully rendered here by “Man Made
Lake.” Similarly, “Contention City,”
about an Arizona
ghost town where short-sighted greed in the 1880’s killed a boomtown in eight quick
years, works as a cautionary tale for, well, every civilization.

 

All of these themes point to the universality of
our plight; if Calexico’s music hops borders, so do the issues they write about.
That’s why a candidate like Obama, whose understanding of them is in direct contrast
to The Shrub’s willful ignorance, offers at least a glimmer of hope. For a band
whose Arizona
hometown is central in the immigration debate and all that it portends, choosing
a uniter over yet another divider is serious stuff, something their travels
have brought home again and again.

 

“You think about Europe,”
says Convertino, “and how they’ve been dealing with borders and different
languages and different cultures for a long time. They’ve obviously had their
problems, but they’ve gotten to a place where they don’t have to build walls
between their countries – as a matter of fact, walls have been coming down, not
going up.”

 

Burns sees Calexico’s role, however minor, as
part of the bigger picture; thematically, aesthetically, and best of all for
us, musically. That’s what gives Carried
to Dust
its impressive power, and makes even the most minimal Calexico
sketch resonate down to our souls.

 

 “Creative
freedom is a wonderful thing,” Burns says. “We’ve been involved with other
projects on major labels and we’ve seen the disconnect: artists are working
with other people who don’t get that artistic background, that cultural
continuity. They just don’t get it. They’re not reading the same books, they’re
not appreciating the same kind of quality of life. You’re face-to-face with a
corporate machine, and it is not about the future, it’s about here and now,
it’s about making money.

 

“There are a lot of people out there who need
money, who are not going to do anything unless they get paid for each and every
action. But everyone we work with is in it for the long haul, and they’re into
a quality of life, having this rich story with their life. They want to go
deep: they don’t want to just float on the surface.”

 

 

 

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